“Basically, I’m a street reporter,” he says. “It’s a tough town—a lot of poverty, a lot of politics. I try to give people a voice.”
Ben-Ali grew up in a middle-class African-American household in New York and New Jersey. But there was a unique component to his family: a grandfather from Bangladesh, who had jumped ship in New Jersey and stayed on to carve out a life in America. Through him, Russell was exposed to the East Indian community in Jersey City, to spicy curries, and to strange-sounding tales of an exotic land. It shaped his outlook on the world. So did working for 10 years at the United Nations, where, as a conference organizer, he traveled to Kenya, Turkey, and Jamaica.
A desire to write got him started in journalism, but Ben-Ali’s path to the news business was anything but direct. First, there was the matter of his degree. He was 36 years old by the time he earned his BBA from Baruch in 1989, wending his way toward the finish line at night while holding down a job at the U.N. by day. In his final semester, he carried 22 credits and took a sabbatical from work just to finish up. “I thought I’d never see a degree in my lifetime,” he sighs, echoing a sentiment shared by many of Baruch’s evening-session students.
Despite it all, he recalls Baruch fondly. It was his third try at higher education, after Queensborough Community College and the University of Delaware (which he attended for a year in the hope of making the U.S. Olympic volleyball team). The discipline and camaraderie of night school made a lasting impression, and Professor Alisa Solomon (English) encouraged his writing ambitions.
A remarkable thing happened to him shortly after he received the long-delayed degree: He won a Times-Mirror Journalism Internship that took him to Los Angeles and the start of a new career. He was one of 10 to get the coveted prize, selected from a field of a thousand applicants. “I sent them clips from the Ticker, plus a couple of newsletters I’d started. But I think what did it was my willingness to quit my job, leave my family behind, and just risk everything,” he says. The pay, he adds, was “tremendously low.” In L.A. he became part of the Pulitzer Prize–winning team that covered the 1992 Rodney King riots, then tearing the city apart.
Reflecting on his work as a city side reporter, Ben-Ali notes that his Baruch business education—he was a finance major—has served him well: “A business degree gives me a lot of confidence when I talk to executives who throw a lot of numbers around.” Most reporters, he notes, are “word people, not numbers people. They shy away from things like capital budgets. If you do that, you can’t really cover the story.”
These days, Ben-Ali lives with his family, including wife Maria, 17-year-old daughter Layla, 8-year-old son Omar, and Ulali, a 13-year old niece, in South Orange, N.J. It’s convenient to work, and he wakes up hearing birds sing. He still has a hankering for his old neighborhood in Manhattan, though. There’s a special kind of urban music about the number 1 train as it emerges above ground at Broadway and 125th Street. Russell, a one-time bass player, remembers that rumble with a touch of nostalgia. “I knew everybody in Morningside Heights,” he says. “I do miss that.” —ZB